Standards Based Learning Update – Fort Madison High School

Over the past five years, the school district has spent considerable time and resources developing into effective professional learning communities.  Our board goals are aligned to this work; any team organized in the district operates within the foundational elements of the practice; professional development nearly always incorporates the central questions used to drive curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning. 

This article will outline that while PLC and standards-based learning are not synonymous, they are closely related, and most often walk side-by-side.  In fact, if you consider that the PLC central questions are about student learning, and how instructors are going to guarantee and make the curriculum viable, a strong argument could be made that the standards-based system is the vehicle that transports us to that destination.  Let’s consider the PLC questions and the accompanying work that is underway at FMHS:

PLC & SBLCurrent Works
1PLC: What do we want our students to know, and be able to do? (standards/targets)
SBL: What is our destination? (standards/targets/curriculum)
It is non-negotiable at the high school that teachers have clearly-articulated, public destinations that drive curriculum, instruction, and assessment for each course.  As you review the above questions, consider that they are both substantially about the destination.  One of the district goals is that all students in the FMCSD will be prepared with the necessary life and social skills for success after graduation.  The answers to these questions define specifically what those skills are.
FMHS has undergone the task of breaking down national and state standards and prioritized what is most essential.  In doing so, each team considered how a chosen standard provided the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the next unit and course; the enduring effect of the standard; whether the standard would be assessed outside of a unit, or course; and the leverage the standard would provide outside of the classroom, and school building.  Once the priority standards for a course were agreed upon, each standard was then broken down into specific learning targets that drive instruction and assessment.  
2PLC: How will we know if they have learned? (assessment)
SBL: How do we know where we are in relation to the destination? (assessment)
Referring again to a district goal, one of them states that all students in the FMCSD will learn through a rigorous curriculum with an emphasis on higher order thinking skills in order to solve complex problems.  Our assessment routines will seek the answers to the above questions.  As such, the assessments we choose to develop and use must be driven by the standards and targets if we are going to meet students where they are, and provide them what they need.
FMHS is striving to develop a cohesive assessment system that provides accurate and actionable evidence of where students are in relation to the standards and learning targets.  Teams have engaged in extensive work to create authentic and relevant formative assessment.  Using formative assessment results, we have entered into teaching-assessing cycles which allow us to instruct, assess, differentiate instruction to meet student needs, and assess again.  This process of viewing our work by student, by standard, is elemental in both professional learning communities and standards-based learning systems.  
3PLC: What will we do if students don’t learn? (instruction)
SBL: How do we move students towards the destination? (instruction)
Our district vision statements speak directly to the “how” of instruction, specifically that highly-motivated, knowledgeable, and caring staff members will strive to attain the highest educational achievement for each student; and that we will have an integrated learning system that provides a district-wide focus to align curriculum to quality learning environments …to ensure all students achieve at high levels.  The questions in this realm are answered through a multi-tiered system of support that uses data to match instructional resources to each student’s needs.  This infrastructure is required by the State of Iowa.  
When we started the process of engaging as professional learning communities, one of the first decisions we had to make was to accept that it is our responsibility to ensure the success of ALL students.  That level of accountability is impossible if we don’t have a coherent and targeted instructional system that uses evidence from assessments.  What is derived from those assessments is going to determine the type, and level of differentiation. Differentiated instruction, therefore, is the most important thing instructors can discuss, which is what they do when they meet in their professional learning teams each week. The decisions made in those meetings are research-based, directive, targeted, timely, and systematic.  From those decisions, we can determine with high probability who needs what, when they need it, and how it will be provided.  What has just been described is the reason FMHS needs, and instituted, a daily flex period in the schedule.  
4PLC: What will we do if they already know it? (instruction)
SBL: How do we move students beyond the destination? (instruction)
These questions are answered in the same manner as the third set of questions, they simply target a different population of students, one which has often been overlooked in public education.  Teachers are problem solvers.  They have a strong desire to “fix” things.  High achievers aren’t broken, and don’t need fixing, so they’re often left alone.  Those high achievers come to like their little slice of solitude.   We fail them when we don’t stretch their minds, however.  When the mission of the district is to ensure all students learn the academic and life skills necessary for personal success and responsible living we are obligated to provide students with the opportunity to take part in deep, enduring, transferable learning.
FMHS continues to amend our process, and adapt to the changes necessary to fully mesh our MTSS system.  We know where we’re going, and always work with the end in mind.  The vehicle that’s taking us to that destination is a gas guzzler, though, and sometimes leaves us stranded on the side of the road.  Our flex time at FMHS was established with the intent of assisting in making the necessary changes.  We’ll get there.  When we do, the high achieving students in our building will be sought to engage in deep, enduring, and transferable learning, rather than having to seek those opportunities themselves.
5SBL: How do we communicate where students are? (reporting)
Reporting learning is where most of the challenges, questions, and pushback comes from in any district, school, or classroom.  At its core, grading and reporting are about communicating where students are in relation to the standards at any given time.  That’s it.  Why our society has made grading so complex and controversial is a topic for another day.  It really should be as simple as very specifically showing students and interested parties what a student has learned, and what they can improve upon.  As with the other sets of questions, the grade and/or report should be explicitly tied to standards and learning targets.  An abundance of clarity must be our goal.
FMHS is engaging in ongoing research and professional development regarding standards-based learning.  The goal is to eventually transition our grading and reporting to a standards-based method.  

As you can see, FMHS is already engaged in the work of standards-based learning through professional learning communities.  Standards-based reporting is the next logical step.  Changing a centuries-old system won’t be without some gnashing of teeth, however.  In the coming months, we hope to engage students, parents, and the community in a partnership that will clarify learning and help us truly live up to the mission, vision, and goals of the Fort Madison Community School District.

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